No 1 - 1973
A Conversation with Edgell Rickword
EDGELL RICKWORD was born in Colchester, Essex, on 22 October, 1898. He joined the Artists Rifles in 1916, and saw active service as an officer with the Royal Berkshire Regiment. He was invalided out of the army after the Armistice, and was awarded the Military Cross.
His first book of poems (Behind the Eyes) appeared in 1921, and this was followed by Invocation to Angels (1928) and Twittingpan and Some Others (1981). His Collected Poems appeared in 1947.
He was Editor of the Calendar of Modern Letters (now reprinted by F. Cass and Co.) from 1925 to 1927, and he was Associate Editor of Left Review (also reprinted by F. Cass and Co.) from 1984 to 1988. He became Editor of Our Time from 1944 to 1947.
Mr Rickword is responsible for several books of criticism, including Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet (first issued 1924) and two volumes of Scrutinies. He has also produced a number of translations of French studies.
WE BEGAN by asking him about his war-poems which, we suggested, were more like some of the poems of World War II than like those of Sassoon or Rosenberg.
Rickword: Yes, that’s quite right. They were written after the end of hostilities, the end of anxiety, as far as one was able to see, of being again involved in fighting. One was reflecting on the experience rather than writing directly out of the experience like Rosenberg. In fact, it’s amazing to think that he must have written actually just when his lot went out of the line to rest. Anyway, that’s the difference between writing as he and Sassoon did, from the direct impact of trench warfare, and still having to live it over again; I could do it more philosophically, perhaps. Though I wouldn’t call it philosophical.
Did you write any poems at all before you went to war?
Rickword: Oh yes. I must have written a lot. Some of the lines come back to me now, to my horror. That was doggerel, scribble, I suppose, in the early years of the war. I joined up in autumn, 1916, and I remember writing a poem about the Easter Rising in Dublin. I wrote pseudo-Swinburne, and all that sort of thing.
Had you read at that time mostly English poetry, rather than French?
Rickword: Yes. I had only the most elementary knowledge of French before I joined up. When I was in France I got hold of some French books and started to teach myself French by reading novels. But I hadn’t read any French poetry that I remember. My attraction to Baudelaire I owe to Swinburne’s magnificent lament for him, ‘Ave atque Vale’.
Who were the main English poets you had read?
Rickword: We had poetry about the house. Not highbrow stuff; father sometimes read aloud Macaulay’s Lays, and mother liked Tennyson which I read to her sometimes whilst she did the mending, so poetry wasn’t strange or cissy. But the atmosphere was mostly Victorian, and serious novels were much more regarded than the poets.
Which of the English war-poets had you read during the war, or before you wrote your war-poems?
Rickword: I was rather enchanted by Graves’s two early books Over the Brazier and Fairies and Fusiliers, but really knocked over by Sassoon’s Counter-Attack which named things as one talked about them. I read Robert Nichols’ Ardours and Endurances, which I found rather theatrical and wordy.
But you frlt that the Graves and the Sassoon were the real thing; this was what war was really like?
Rickword: Well, I liked Graves, but he didn’t give you the shock of the real thing as Sassoon did. Graves’s poems are a bit distanced, I think. I remember the poem about the German soldier bayonetting the young English soldier — ’David and Goliath’ — but there aren’t any actual descriptions in Graves to bring home to you what it was like. Of course, nobody had any idea what it was like to be in the trenches. You usually got there gradually, moving up the line by stages.
How did you react to the Georgians?
Rickword: I accepted them mostly. I thought that was a way to write. Of course, I very soon lost interest in them. Brooke I quite liked, his first volume. I had an English master, an Australian, who talked to me about Brooke and Flecker and other poets I shouldn’t have heard of otherwise. With us, poetry had stopped at Newbolt and Kipling. But somehow one got hold of that volume of Yeats, the Poems, which had all his Celtic-twilight stuff — melodious, evocative and all that, but not a very good influence, really.
Can you tell us something about Oxford after the war?
Rickword: I went up at the beginning of the academic year, in October, 1919. There were a lot of soldier-poets, as it were, just beginning their terms, or completing them after active service. And there seemed a lot of school-boys about.
L. P. Hartley was there, I think, and Vivian de Sola Pinto, Edmund Blunden, Louis Golding, A. E. Coppard, Jack Isaacs, Alan Porter, Anthony Bertram, the art-critic; all of these one came across. Blunden I knew well; we had served in different brigades of the same division, though we never actually met during the war. But afterwards I met him through Sassoon and W. J. Turner. Roy Campbell was there, in lodgings, and he knew the Sitwells and William Walton. When I read Evelyn Waugh’s diaries of his early days in Oxford I thought how much more sober things were in my day. We did have a good time though, even rather sybaritic. I remember strawberries and champagne in the afternoon. There was a good pub, The Jolly Farmers I think it was called, where we used to do readings of the Jacobean dramatists. I don’t think anybody did much work; we were still too dazed at being alive at all. I hardly went to lectures. I had a tutor who used to give me a glass of sherry and then talk about Montaigne, Descartes, and other people I’d only read about. And I didn’t hear of them again until I started to read them out of curiosity.
Were there interdisciplinary marriages at Oxford? Was the literary world aware of anthropology, of scientific and philosophical thought as it was at Cambridge; or was it isolated, as it seems to be today?
Rickword: I didn’t hear any science discussed at Oxford; only Freudianism was coming in. Yes, Cambridge had a more intellectual reputation. The Cavendish had given them, willy-nilly, a scientific tradition.
What were you reading at Oxford?
Rickword: I was on a special short course for ex-Service men in which only one subject had to be taken. I chose French literature. But I hardly knew any French. The syllabus ended with Hugo. I took one look at it and decided that I wasn’t interested, so I started on Verlaine and Baudelaire, who, my tutor told me, didn’t come in.
Rickword: No, certainly not Rimbaud. So I decided to leave it at that.
So you didn’t take a degree in the end. How long were you up?
Rickword: Four terms. Then I got married, and had no money, except for a disability pension, so I had to look about for a job. I got an introduction to the TLS, from Turner, I suppose. I was quite friendly with the Squire lot then; Squire took some of my poems for the London Mercury, including, surprisingly, ‘Trench Poets’ and two or three others. Then they gave me an article or two to write. In good months I earned about £20 from the TLS. They paid three guineas a thousand, quite good for those days, but, of course, some months you’d get very little. Life was quite a bit ups-and-downsy.
Desmond MacCarthy was very good to me. He gave me a desk in his office and quite a lot of reviewing for the New Statesman of which he was literary editor. He was a very fine critic especially of the eighteenth-century. But he liked to keep in contact with the young movements, so he asked us to tell him what we thought of the poems which came in.
In your early poems you often seem to return to the theme of the incapacity of art to confront extreme experience — in ‘Trench Poets’, for example; and in another poem you say, ‘Leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time’?
Rickword: Yes, that was a sort of bravado, you know — one which pervades the early poems. But it ought not to be forgotten that for masses of men and women in 1914, war seemed to open up exhilarating experiences. War fever is a real disease.
Was there any real interest in the formal impact of modernism then? Joyce, for instance?
Rickword: Not really. Till after the war I didn’t think of modernism as anything to do with choosing what I wanted to read. I read Portrait of the Artist fairly soon. It came out in 1916, didn’t it? Well, I didn’t read it then. I’d joined up, and hadn’t any money anyway. But it was the good review of it by Gerald Gould in the New Statesman, I think, which gave me an urge to read it as soon as I could. When I was posted over in Ireland at the end of 1917 I went to a book-shop in Grafton Street, and asked if they had it. There was a sort of silence, and then the counterman said they’d got one upstairs, and he asked me to call back later — then I got a copy all nicely wrapped up. I’d read Dubliners too, but those stories weren’t terrifically avant-garde, were they? And that left a great gap to Ulysses.
What about the imagists?
Rickword: I didn’t rate them very much. All that Grecian business, a Greece that never had been, and the short lines. Well, it wasn’t that I was unsympathetic to Imagism. But this imagism was so limited in subject-matter and technique. Drippy, very often. The few successful pieces I seem to remember could just as well have been high-spots in longer poems. By themselves they didn’t really amount to much. It’s handy to have them all together in that Penguin done by Peter Jones. I never saw The Egoist, but there were some good periodicals just then — Art and Letters, Coterie, and Holdbrook Jackson’s To-day. Later the Sitwells’ Wheels anthologies livened things up a bit.
When did you first become interested in Rimbaud?
Rickword: At Oxford, first of all; he was in the anthology Poètes d’Aujourd hui, including the ‘Bateau lvre’. But I didn’t really start reading him thoroughly until MacCarthy and Sturge-Moore, I think, suggested that I should do a book about him.
That was at a time when the French surrealists were seeing Rimbaud and Lautréamont as revolutionary heroes, but you didn’t see him in that light?
Rickword: Well, the poems were very much in revolt. Being taken up by the surrealists couldn’t make them any more so.
Poetic or social revolt? Or both at once?
Rickword: I think social, first and foremost, though his style was certainly ‘in advance’, even while using traditional forms. But in the great Lettre du Voyant he broke through all such distinctions as poetic and social.
When did your own political commitments begin?
Rickword: I suppose when I was about 15 or 16. I used to read the New Statesman, and Wells and Morris. It wasn’t a home influence, though; home was conventional moderate Tory. I remember that at Oxford we supported the bus-strike, and there was a semi-riot in which buses and cars were overturned. Some chaps were arrested and taken to the police-station. The crowd said, ‘Let’s get them out!’ When we went to get them out, we found the road barred by a lot of Bullingdon chaps, all in their dinner-jackets. A rather picturesque confrontation. Hefty Blues in their dinner-jackets. There were all kinds of strikes in the early days, after the war, about demobilisation. Yes, a lot of discontent at that time. We didn’t do much about it, but it seemed to us the proper thing to be done.
Did you have any opinions about the Allied intervention in Russia?
Rickword: Yes. Again, we thought there ought to be a Russian Revolution, though it hadn’t been very nice as a soldier to feel that the German divisions were coming back from Russia to fight us on the Western front. An anti-war movement was developing in 1917, and there could have been a stronger one if the Allies’ Summer Offensive had not been successful.
Robert Graves said in The Long Weekend that there might have been an English revolution. Did you feel that?
Rickword: Yes, but I’m not convinced. There wasn’t anybody to lead it, except the Clydesiders and the Welsh miners who were more militant than anybody else.
What prompted you, Douglas Garman, and Bertram Higgins to start The Calendar?
Rickword: We were a sort of discontented club, discontented with all the established novelists and the literary cliques. We hadn’t any clear idea of what would be better. There was no movement like the dada-surrealist one, or German Expressionism. Our Vortex perished early in the war. England was very sluggish. We’d had the Vorticists and Blast, which was superficial, really, when you compare it with the European upheaval. I think of Dadaism now as a very important movement, though it had seemed to me entirely destructive; I was slow to realise that that was the essential thing about it. The German dadaists were more interesting than the French. England had seen Futurism, of course, but that was just laughed at here.
You mentioned Wyndham Lewis’s Blast. What was your attitude to him?
Rickword: I was too young to know about Blast in 1914, and Vorticism was defunct by the early ‘twenties. But I remember The Tyro was good, though it wouldn’t have started a movement. ‘The Caliph’s Design’ was stimulating, and some of Lewis’s short-stories were interesting and original. I decided to try to rope Lewis in for The Calendar, though, as a contributor. But we got chunks of his ‘books in progress’ which gave us a hard editing problem. He wouldn’t produce any stories, which we would have preferred. Perhaps he hadn’t got any.
We criticised him quite harshly in reviews; we reserved the right to criticise all out contributors.
The Calendar had a distinctive criticism and critical style. Was there an underlying critical theory, or was it pragmatic?
Rickword: There was a committee of the whole house. We agreed about most things, I think. We talked a lot together and got an arrived-at consensus.
You thought of yourselves as rivals to Eliot’s Criterion?
Rickword: Well, yes. The Criterion was a bit of a rag-bag. Eliot dug up a lot of old French critics, of an earlier generation, all pseudoclassicists. That was probably the result of his having been at the Sorbonne before the war.
You felt the same way about some contemporary poets, that there should be commitment on the part of the artist, not to a social programme necessarily, but to his own time?
Rickword: Yes. We didn’t like the way poets like Noyes and Binyon derived their imagery from archaic sources — that sort of thing.
Which formal styles did you sympathise with?
Rickword: We were looking for something different, individual, with a unique sensibility showing through technique. Different, at least, from the sort of poets who appeared in Thomas Moult’s anthologies, for instance, and the Poems of To-Day series.
But you had major diffierences from modernists such as Eliot and Lewis, for example?
Rickword: Yes. A different social outlook, I think. One condemned modern civilisation for its uniformity and mass-mediocrity. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis had a wrong sort of elitism, believing themselves cut off from common humanity. But it’s a condition of living, isn’t it? We have to live with one another. It’s very Swiftian. Swift was the most vigorous hater we’ve ever had in our literature, but he’s not like Eliot and Lewis. He never despised common humanity as individuals, though he hated many things about it in the mass.
In this ‘common humanity’ view, what function does literature have? Is it like George Eliot’s ‘increasing human sympathy’?
Rickword: Well, that would be rather more a clerical and religious job. I think literature is basically communication, and I think you can’t communicate what isn’t in some sense common: in sympathy with, not for!
But isn’t there a sort of contradiction — I suppose this is what T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis and people who admire them would say — between high critical standards and the need for wider communication. Do you think that a genuinely popular literature is possible?
Rickword: Oh yes, I think so. The danger is that the media slow down the process. It’s grossly insolent to think that one understands things that other people can’t possibly understand. The artist’s job is to communicate. I don’t mean that we’re all dead equal, because we have different faculties, and we can’t measure degrees in those things. I don’t say that everybody could be a good poet or painter. I think basically you’ll find that revolutions of technique and so on — if they survive — are an advancing, a making of language, whatever medium it may be in, more accessible. No, not only more accessible, but making more wide and deep an understanding possible. You see the innovation in twelve-tone music. Although it’s out of one’s reach, or out of the reach of most people at present, it will in time become absorbed into one’s way of hearing. It’s the critic’s job, really, to discern which are the positive and progressive innovations.
Quite early on in The Calendar, in one of your articles, you talked about the use of ‘negative emotions’. Did you mean the destructive critical emotions? Was the good eighteenth-century norm your ideal — one which gives the writer a chance to criticise his age with lots of weapons?
Rickword: Yes. I think I meant that the poetry of my contemporaries was kind and nice and sweet, and that there was no need to confine poetry to the expression of such feelings. But that is really all finished now. Everybody uses ‘negative emotions’ now. But when you think of Drinkwater or Noyes, that sort of people! You see there was never anything harsh or discordant in what they wrote.
But Masefield and some of the Georgians — Rupert Brooke, for example — thought that they were being discordant?
Rickword: Masefield tried to be really tough, and was quite good at it. He was even extravagantly colloquial in such rhymed narratives as Daffodil Fields and The Widow in the Bye Street. Brooke did write some would-be-rough stuff, but generally put it across with a sort of archness. ‘Channel Crossing’ was quite an achievement, but it was a case of the subject being taboo, rather than his emotion being negative.
But don’t you think this was all external ‘negative emotion’, that somebody like Edward Thomas had internal ‘negative emotions’ — internalised, as it were, which probably makes for the contemporaneity of his verse and the passé quality of Masefield at present?
Rickword: Yes, I see what you mean. Edward Thomas really transmuted it.
I think that you do, too, in some of your more negative poems. Like ‘Regrets’.
Rickword: Well, that is what one tried to do. It’s something like the cubists, perhaps, who wanted to paint all sides of an object, to show an object in full. And it’s a perennial problem in all art, isn’t it? To synthesise the different facets of an emotional experience.
Can you tell us something about the series of ‘Scrutinies’, where you criticised some of the established writers of the day. You began yourself with Barrie, didn’t you?
Rickword: We started out with this idea of a clean break, or whatever you like to call it, and we wanted to say why these figures needed shifting. So we had to criticise them. I mean, they were just taken for granted by the public. To you, it may seem that it wasn’t sticking one’s neck out to criticise Barrie, but really it was so in those days. He was still rather a deity; and even if some people admitted that he was a bit soppy, they still thought him a charming man, so witty and lovely, and ‘Have you been to Mary Rose?’ The tears! People actually wept. Ghastly!
But you were doing rather more than getting rid of Barrie, weren’t you? rou were setting new critical standards in insisting (as in Barrie’s case) that literature should be essentially something in which emotions came into conflict?
Rickword: Well, yes, in part. One did definitely feel that he was a harmful influence. I wonder we got away with Bertram’s demolition of Masefleld’s poetry, too. And D. H. Lawrence’s onslaught on Galsworthy might not escape editorial objections even today. That was in the second volume of Scrutinies, which is, perhaps, not so well known?
You wrote in The Calendar one of the first essays sympathetic to de Sade, and obviously you were interested in the psychology of the man. Was this all part of your feeling that it was important to be true to the human heart in all its complexity, goodness and rottenness? I mean your ‘Notes for a Study of Sade’.
Rickword: ‘Notes’, yes, because the last word has not yet been said about de Sade. He was really very dreadful. But it’s no use just saying that. There had been no reference to him for a century; he just wasn’t allowed to be mentioned. And nobody had read him anyway. It was almost impossible to. I had read one volume of the original Justine which a chap had lent me.
What were you doing between the end of The Calendar and the beginning of your association with Left Review?
Rickword: It was rather a broken-up period. I was doing a certain amount of reviewing. I couldn’t go back to the TLS. They’d treated me very well, but I felt that phase was over.
I did a certain amount of work for Wishart who had put up the money for The Calendar. He agreed to set up a publishing firm. And although I didn’t work full-time there, I got an occasional job from them. There were sometimes reviews for papers like The Sunday Referee. Then I did a translation of a book about Verlaine — Born under Saturn — for which I got £50. It’s amazing how money spread then. I lived in the country for a while, then I came up to begin work full-time in publishing. We had quite a big and varied list at Wishart’s. Then gradually everybody got more and more political, and we were amalgamated with Martin Lawrence Ltd. — the Communist Party publishing house — and we became Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. We started off our first year with a good list of general literature as well as political literature. That went phut; we hadn’t got proper sales representation, and the Party side of it wasn’t keen on having general books in. So it got dropped. After Left Review I sort of faded out; they hadn’t got any work for me, really.
You had come into contact with Jack Lindsay and the London Aphrodite?
Rickword: Yes. Now that was one of the bright spots long before Left Review. Jack and I became close friends in 1928 or so, although he was out of London a lot. In the first flush of enthusiasm, his Fanfrolico Press did very well. Then the bottom fell out of the market for those luxury editions.
Both editors of the London Aphrodite, Jack Lindsay and P. R. Stephensen, were very anti-modernist, weren’t they? And anti-American? They wrote things like ‘You can’t get blood out of a Stein’ and they were suggesting, at one point, a new tradition for a vital English literature based on Beddoes, Keats, Francis Thompson and Shakespeare?
Rickword: It must have been ‘Inky’ Stephensen who wrote like that in the London Aphrodite. It wasn’t altogether canonical. I think I converted Jack to Marxism soon afterwards.
When had you become converted?
Rickword: Well, I’m not sure that you could have ever called me ‘converted’, not quite.
You converted other people, but you weren’t really a Marxist yourself?
Rickword: I am a Marxist in the sense that I try to relate public happenings to the tissue of cause and effect which he divined in the interplay of material and economic forces. Sometimes this may strike a spark in the person one is talking to; in this case Jack and I were going on about Aristophanes and Athens — but you can read that in Jack’s book, Fanfrolice and After. But one does not think that a sympathy with Marxism makes anyone an oracle.
Why did The Calendar have to close down? Was it financial, or lack of good work?
Rickword: Lack of good work was certainly one reason. The last numbers were rather short on material. I had to do one or two things myself just to fill up. It may have been our fault. I suppose we could have got stories and such things, but the critics were lacking. You see, Garman and Bertram Higgins had gone off somewhere. John Holms had died. I really couldn’t justify going on to the chap who put up the money.
Had you any ideas for new things? Was Marxism at the back of your minds then?
Rickword: Well, at least, that’s what happened.
The Calendar was never anti-traditional, was it? In your article on ‘The Returning Hero’ you talked about the surviving fabric of the ‘old culture’. Was this like Eliot’s tradition and culture?
Rickword: I suppose I meant the pre-industrial culture. There was certainly nothing anti-cultural in The Calendar. We had no wish to destroy the old culture in any sense. Possibly there was a sort of feeding back. We had been reading a lot of the Elizabethans and pre-Elizabethans. We were trying to feel the life in them.
Artistic life and culture?
Rickword: You can’t really separate the literary culture from the feelings of the people who make the society, can you? It’s only one aspect of the society, the pre-industrial society in that instance.
So rather than believing in any discontinuity, there’s a desire for a continuity based on authentic models? The writer’s task is to renew language, but from the founts?
Rickword: Well, that’s a problem which hardly arose in the old days. Language changed so slowly — and, of course, it must change. But now it’s mutilated daily by the mass-media. Even the academic world isn’t innocent of it.
You were also attacking Romantic standards of criticism, and amateurish ones? There’s one review when you get very upset by F. L. Lucas’s description of critics as ‘charming parasites’.
Rickword: Dear me, yes, ‘charming parasites’! And we did rather bash at the egocentric universe; the individual just isn’t the standard of everything.
Is that why you rejected Wyndham Lewis finally? Because of his tremendous imaginative projection of his vision onto everything? The way Pound did on all the poets around, trying to convert them all to Poundians?
Rickword: Well, I suppose so. I don’t know. I just got fed up with Lewis. I’m trying to read him again to see what caused the distaste. But John Holm’s review of his Shakespeare book — The Lion and the Fox — did show up the very shallow basis for Lewis’s generalisations. He had this brilliant comic gift of language, but that is not really adequate for criticism, for creative criticism.
Do you mean by ‘creative criticism’ one which examines the text in its context? Isn’t there a sense in which this works against the ‘practical criticism’ methods first introduced by I. A. Richards?
Rickword: There’s much to be said for that method. See what the man has to say. But the background elucidates the text. What he writes isn’t determined by the background, as some Marxists might argue, but it does illuminate it, and gives a dimension to what he has to say. The meaning is two-dimensional, perhaps, and the background brings in a third dimension, in which the meaning comes alive.
Can I quote what Jack Lindsay said in his Meetings with Poets? He said how unfortunate it was that you abandoned poetry yourself in the early nineteen-thirties, and:
‘If Edgell with his strong Baudelairian sense of the city had continued to compose and develop we should not have been left defenceless against the take-over by the Audens and Spenders in the thirties. As a result of that dereliction we in England lacked the rich development of the true political poetry represented by Eluard and Tzara in France’.
I think he’s saying two things. Firstly (and I agree with him) that it’s a great pity that you gave up writing poetry so early. Secondly, that English political poetry in the thirties was weak.
Rickword: Well, what would you name as English political poetry in the nineteen-thirties?
Lindsay himself named only Edith Sitwell. I think he meant the poetry after Gold Coast Customs and Black Sun.
Rickword: Well, yes. But I don’t know that any of Tzara’s poetry can really be called ‘political’. Eluard’s did become so in the thirties, and in the Resistance, certainly.
But if your satire was political, at which sort of audience was it aimed?
Rickword: The intelligentsia, I suppose.
Did you feel that there was a consensus at that time, that the satire addressed to the intelligentsia would be read by them and understood by them? Because the notion of consensus now seems quite dissipated.
Rickword: I should have thought it has become so now—in the Bohemian literary set. But in those days the poems did get round a bit. People used to refer to them.
But did you expect the poems to have any effect as such? Auden has said that his thirties poems had no effect whatsoever. In fact, he seems to believe that poetry never has any effect on society.
Rickword: Yes, he said it didn’t save a single Jew from the gas-chambers. But how can he tell, anyway? I think that in Auden’s case it is just an excuse for himself, being reactionary, pretending that they were not political. He has behaved in a rather reactionary way in his recent poetry. And he won’t allow Spain to be reprinted.
But of course, somebody must react, and then if the reaction circulates at all it must have effect on somebody. Take my three-little quatrain things — one anti-religious, making fun of institutionalised religion, anyway — and one ‘An Old Rhyme Rerhymed’ which was directed at Tom Eliot. I was going to put as an epigraph to that one, ‘ “Tom’s a-cold” (Shakespeare)’. But when I saw that Eliot had also contributed a poem to Whips and Scorpions (the anthology which Sherard Vines did) I thought I ought to cut it out for decency’s sake. ‘Tom’s a-cold’. Now that was a very ungentlemanly thing to do, when I come to think of it. Poor Eliot suffered. Ought one to behave like that to a person? Would it hurt him?
But you can’t really write with conviction unless you believe that it will have some effect. Of course my poem ‘To the wife of a Non-Intervention Statesman’ appealed only to anti-fascists. But it was printed in Argentina and all over the place, and although it’s rather crude in places, it did express a very real feeling, and I think it did have some effect; though it did not disband the 4-Power Non-Intervention Committee.
Does your poetry have a narrower audience, do you think, than current ‘politically committed’ oral verse writers think they have — those writers who have a different view of their audience and, in a sense, write down to it?
Rickword: I wouldn’t say ‘write down’, because they envisage an audience on that level. It’s quite legitimate. You can’t write a newspaper leader in the same language you would use for an article on philosophical definitions, can you? I would say that the poetry I write is in general more reasoned; it probably wouldn’t appeal to a pub audience very much — except possibly a few poems, like ‘Twittingpan’. I’m not sure that you can make this distinction, really. You can’t have everything suitable for everybody, and there’s no reason why one should not write poetry that’s a bit hard-reasoned or closely argued, or even a bit abstruse — that you can get at by reading it, though it doesn’t come over by the voice so well.
I think Adrian Mitchell’s lyrics for Weiss’s Marat-Sade were excellent, brilliant and theatrically effective. I thought his Vietnam lyrics — particularly ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ — monotonous and oppressive, not at all effective or stirring.
Can local, specific political messages or sentiment about immediate social issues be effectively treated in any but an ironical vein as poetry rather than as rhetoric?
Rickword: I should think it’s almost impossible. It must be distanced by irony or some such mood or attitude. Poetry is a heightening; it must be isolated from the tide of quotidian standards — a bit.
Then expressly political poetry is almost non-existent, and political content is more an inherent quality in a poem — presenting contradictions or contrasts in a unitary form, presenting both sides of the coin at once and opening up moral choices rather than giving us a political lesson? Or giving us an ethical lesson, if it gives us a lesson at all?
Rickword: Yes, I would say that. The poem that addresses itself to immediate ends — that’s what you would call a ‘political’ poem — can be very effective literature, however, as in Marvell or Swift. I think that Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ gets above immediate ends, and shows two sides of the thing at the same time. It’s not simply a Republican attacking a Royalist. But his post-Restoration verse-satires are frankly and effectively partisan, and once their impact has been experienced there are no lingering undertones.
Why did you decide to stop writing poetry?
Rickword: Well, I didn’t decide. It was dissatisfaction, I imagine, at myself. It’s a curious thing though. Why did Peter Quennell not write more poetry, or William Empson? It was a very bad time, you see. We haven’t talked about the Depression, the sense then — as in Journey to the End of the Night by Céline — of the ghastly degradation of existence. I did write one or two reactionary poems at that time.
How do you mean ‘reactionary’? Were they warning against the coming revolution?
Rickword: No. But ‘Apostate Humanitarian’, that’s essentially reactionary. The attitude that if you say, ‘To Hell with everything!’ ‘Stamp on everybody!’ then the Gods will come back.
Wasn’t this a common attitude of your generation at the time of the Depression? Wasn’t it almost impossible to write if you didn’t get out of England, as Graves did, or develop conservative, even right-wing attachments, as Eliot and Lewis did?
Rickword: Yes, but those two were backward before; they weren’t converted to that by the Depression. I wonder how general the silencing was? Even on the continent the surrealists must have been affected by this. But it didn’t affect Brecht; he saw the possibility of political action. Marxism there was much stronger, whereas here it never really came on the agenda.
How far did the need to be involved in direct political action affect your generation’s desire to write poetry?
Rickword: Well, until Love on the Dole there wasn’t much literary expression of the situation here. Auden did express it in 1930, but you can’t say that he projected proletarian revolution.
You continued to try to write poetry?
Rickword: I was getting more back into conventional metres and conventional forms, and I had wanted to break away — which I tried to do in ‘Happy New Year’, where the recitative is rather irregular, but the choruses keep coming back into rather regular metrical stanzas. That was a disappointment, really. I find it’s rather difficult, when you accept these forms, not to lose some sort of freshness, whereas by breaking up the forms you don’t necessarily capture the freshness either. It was an artistic failure, a lack of something.
Some Marxist critics suggest that without the working-class experience, authentic intellectual or literary commitment to and communication with the majority of people is impossible for a writer, or at best only partial?
Rickword: You could equally say that the working classes can’t appreciate poetry written by the upper classes! But they do, don’t they? I think it’s much too rigidly conceived, this. There may be at times a quality of coldness, or rather a remoteness, but it needn’t exclude any intelligent reader. Surely it is your contact with the language that matters. We ought to come back more to the language, the richness and the control of language. It very much still survives among the less-well-off classes, particularly in the regions, more than it does among middle-class or public school people.
Aren’t there things which the less-educated can’t do with language that a person with a more standard classical education can do?
Rickword: Well, we’ve had quite a few fine writers and poets who’ve only the barest education beyond reading and writing — John Clare and Cobbett, for example. And what about a lot of those dons? They can’t reason. I don’t see that they’re so much better placed, certainly not to write poetry, where you don’t need
their sort of intellect.
Why is it that the working-class man who has the desire to write usually doesn’t write in the language of his region, but accepts idioms and literary modes that are current?
Rickword: There is a point in what you say. A working-class chap who wants to express himself will use the modes of the more highly-educated.
But do you believe that a viable working-class culture is possible now? You have this paradox in modern education where, on the one hand, there’s the view that everybody should try to extend the registers of his language as far as possible in order to communicate across all kinds of classes or divisions; on the other, there’s the claim that the working-class has its own language and culture, its own limitations, maybe, but still particular to it and viable. To try to iron out the differences is a wrong objective, depriving the working-class of their culture.
Rickword: I don’t think there is such a culture now, in our industrial society. You can see this in Africa, too, where the step from tribalism to industrialism has been so sudden. Many of the most gifted writers write in English, and write very well in English, though I don’t know that they write as well as they would if they wrote in their original languages. Language is the most important thing, and not enough attention is paid to that. All this translation we get now, for example, a lot of it is footling, I think, because you’re not getting anything of what the poet meant — if he’s a real poet — if you know nothing about the language’s sound and the subtleties of inflection, not only in sound but in sense where the position of a word alters its significance. That is the feebleness of much open-ended poetry too—not that it says literally much more (it may say less) but that it makes no use of the qualities of rhythm and inflection.
F. R. Leavis called his selections from the essays published in The Calendar, Towards Standards of Criticism. What advice do you give to the modern poetry reader and critic? How should he approach poetry critically?
Rickword: Well, he has to have read a lot of other poetry to qualify as a critic at all, I imagine. Then he could only measure what he felt when he read something new against what he felt with some of the other things he’d read. What he feels is the important thing, not whether he thinks it’s good or not. If he doesn’t feel anything, he can’t make a useful judgement — any judgement at all. But if he sees a literal level, and sees nothing more, then he’s no good as a critic.
How much of the literature of the past should one have read? Is there no limit? How ‘educated’ does one have to be before one can be an adequate reader?
Rickword: I think one does not need to have read very much; reading, after all, can be dispersive, or dissipatory. But there’s a period of four or five years when young people read everything, and that’s the important time.
I suppose to be alive in one’s time is to be aware of what’s going on around us, as well as to be aware of the relevant past — which is what you said in The Calendar nearly fifty years ago. The past that is relevant is the one that also speaks to one’s contemporaries?
Rickword: Yes. If you don’t enjoy reading the past, the past is dead. Therefore ‘education’ can be a mechanical process in which I have no faith at all. A chap under a hedge who has a book with only half its pages could be educating himself better than one sitting at a desk in an up-to-date classroom.
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